When George Gastis sold his tech and marketing business, capping off a long career in that industry, he began casting around for a way to upend his desk-bound lifestyle and pursue his passion. "I have European roots, and food was a big part of family and celebration," he explains. "So I thought, how can I get involved in food or agriculture?"
He didn't feel qualified to become a large-scale farmer, but he wanted to do something that would have a meaningful impact on food sourcing and food justice and allow him to share his love for growing food. As he settled into his neighborhood on the border of Englewood and Cherry Hills Village, he realized he also wanted to create a community gathering place like the Source, the Stanley Marketplace and the businesses he frequented when he lived closer to Old South Pearl Street. When his daughter spied a gas station for sale at 900 East Hampden Avenue, he began to form plans to pull all of those goals together; next year, he'll open Grow & Gather, marrying sustainable agriculture, a local market and a food and beverage concept under one greenhouse-adorned roof.
Anchoring the project is a year-round, indoor hydroponic food farm Gastis says will focus on greens and herbs, with other experiments. He's been experimenting with vertical hydroponic systems at home, which he says will alleviate the space requirements normally ascribed to this method of production. That piece of the project will come online first; he hopes to start growing experimentally by spring of 2018, assuming construction goes to plan. Grow & Gather will also encompass outdoor perimeter gardens, and Gastis is laying plans for a rooftop greenhouse, from which he hopes to cull crops like heirloom tomatoes. "It won’t be able to crank a ton out, but we'll have a supply of things you can’t normally get year-round," he explains.
The farm will fuel a market, which will also sell produce and items from what Gastis calls a "hyper-local network" of farmers and producers. The vision for this, he says, channels "an old-fashioned general store, with handmade goods, pickles, salsas, sauces — stuff you see at farmers' markets."
The farm will also feed into a small-scale food and beverage eatery, the details of which are still forming. "This is a really natural fit for a small-scale farm-to-table restaurant," says the owner. "We're entertaining partnerships and other opportunities," and he's open to anything from a more commissary-style catering kitchen to a cafe. Whatever goes into the space, he wants it to feed lunch-goers in a neighborhood with a dearth of wholesome, quick options. And he'd also like to serve an educational void, using the kitchen and the facility for cooking classes, as a test kitchen and for small-scale events. "This is not going to be a full-scale grocery store or restaurant," he says. "It's a way for us to promote other local farmers and chefs or product creators."
Gastis tapped restaurant-industry heavy hitters Xan Creative and One Line Studio to design the space, and they'll preserve the legacy of the gas station, called Bill's Auto Service, in the work they do. "A piece of this is preserving a really cool building in a transitional neighborhood that might otherwise get swept up and transformed into apartments," he says. "It has a great history and great legacy. The family owned the building from 1952. The were beloved in the community."
If Grow & Gather is successful, Gastis would ultimately like to use it as a model to bring this type of food-agriculture hybrid to other neighborhoods. "There are other neighborhoods that are just like this — primed for new things and community-driven — and that’s where the repeat of the model can happen," he says, whether that's in north Denver, Cleveland or Northern California. "I believe it’s repeatable, and I want to help spawn these food-based initiatives around places that could use a similar operation." His ultimate goal, he says, is to make local, well-sourced food accessible, even to people for whom shopping at expensive markets like Whole Foods is not an option. And the building itself, he hopes, will be a model for what's possible: Solar and hydro power, a green roof and water storage and reuse all factor into the buildout plans.
Grow & Gather should start vending its own produce in late 2018, and Gastis says the goal is to have everything open by spring of 2019.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.